Cop Blaster received a letter from a convict at the United States Penitentiary in Pollock, Louisiana (USP) which details a dental nightmare strikingly similar to one this author suffered through at a different USP just a few years. The root cause of the problem seems to be a policy or custom by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) of denying dental care to inmates on lockdown status.
Josh Stetzer is no stranger to being mistreated by the feds. Cop Blaster first covered Josh's struggle in 2019 when this author personally wrote about my experience in the Columbia County Jail in St. Helens, Oregon where I was being held on a United States Marshal (USM) hold. Also on a USM hold was Stetzer. When living in D-pod he showed me a bunch of paperwork from his case which made it overwhelming clear that a vindictive prosecutor was retaliating against him for winning an appeal (https://copblaster.com/blast/185/making-a-carjacker-starring-vindictive-fed-prosecutor-leah-bolstad). Stetzer's mom posted a comment asking people to write him, so I did and among his responses were a recent letter post marked January 25th of this year which included a horrible story which brought back bad memories for me.
Stetzer describes USP Pollock being placed on lockdown due to a native stabbing a guard shortly after a separate black on black stabbing. I doubt the yard was locked down for long after the black on black stabbing because the BOP doesn't care about black people, but they love their own and any attack on guard with a weapon by anyone will always be followed by an institution wide lockdown that lasts at least a few weeks. During those few weeks the medical staff does little more than deliver pills to your cell. If you want to see a doctor you're told to go to sick call when the lockdown is lifted. Medical care is seldom provided and requires a staff member to recognize a life or death emergency. Normally all an inmate must do to see the dentist is walk down to dental sick call on the right day of the week, but that is not possible if the institution is on lockdown. The results are stories like the following one transcribed directly from Stetzer's letter:
"I had a loose tooth with extreme pain. I put in a medical request form that explained the issue. Well I got no response period. Well I was forced to pull it out and I have the tooth in my possession. I feel that is cruel and unusual punishment I was in extreme pain and left with no option but to pull it. I could not eat or sleep. Its wrong to have my medical issues ignored and I will hold onto this tooth as proof." - Josh Stetzer
Stetzer's story reminded me of when I was stuck in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) at USP Victorville for a few weeks with a bad tooth. It started with mild discomfort followed shortly by excruciating pain, swelling, and a throbbing sensation that never stopped day or night. The throbbing kept me from sleeping despite being heavily medicated. I submitted several requests for medical care accurately describing the problem, complained directly to the medical staff during sick call as well as pill line, and got nothing. The throbbing went on for 2-3 weeks until shortly before I was sent back to general population. When I got back to the yard a bunch of the other white guys in the chow hall were quick to point out how swollen my jaw looked. I walked straight down to dental sick call first thing the next morning and was able to see the dentist right away. In fact, my jaw was so swollen that the dentist noticed me sitting in the waiting room and moved me to the front of the line. Lucky for me we actually had a good dentist working there. I asked him to pull the tooth, but he said that wasn't necessary. He gave me penicillin to kill the swelling and gave me a root canal a few days later. He saved my tooth and I still have it to this day.
It is not uncommon for a correctional facility to have a good doctor or a good dentist. The challenge is getting past the gatekeepers. Those gatekeepers consist primarily of physicians' assistants that think their job is to find excuses not to let you see the doctor or dentist (ex: https://copblaster.com/blast/14/brigitte-wolverton-incompetent-trainwreck-of-negligence). Gatekeeping becomes much easier for them when they don't have to worry about anybody showing up for sick call. Then they feel free to ignore you unless it looks like you're dying and even then you're lucky if they notice (ex: https://copblaster.com/blast/76/daniel-gunnels-did-not-have-to-die-in-victorville).
Why does this happen? It happens for a few reasons. The BOP has policies for how to handled medical requests from inmates that are on lockdown either by virtue of a yard lockdown or being placed in the SHU. The policies allow them to satisfy the bare minimum requirements simply by looking inside your cell and saying you look fine. Complaints of serious pain unless combined with an obvious serious injury are blown off as attempts to get high on pain medication. The staff also has a custom of simply telling people that if they want to go to sick call at their earliest possible convenience not to go to SHU and not to do anything to get the yard locked down. The staff seems to think people will behave better if threatened with denial of medical care. That might make practical sense to people that work in corrections, but under the law everyone has the right to adequate healthcare no matter how they act. Healthcare at BOP facilities for general population inmates are already horribly inadequate and nothing justifies making things any worse for anybody.
What can you do? Not much other than complain about it and hope somebody will do something. You can however help individual inmates get through it better by writing them or sending them stuff. To those ends if you would like to write Stetzer his information is as follows:
Joshua Thomas Stetzer
United States Penitentiary
P.O. Box 2099
Pollock, LA 71467
You can also send him money via Western Union at https://www.westernunion.com/us/en/send-money/app/sendinmatestart. Just select Federal Bureau of Prisons as the facility and be prepared to enter his information.
Watch the video below to learn why tooth infections can be deadly in rare cases. Due to that risk it is not reasonable for BOP staff to ignore reports of tooth aches. Stetzer called his dental pain "cruel and unusual punishment" and we agree, but unfortunately the law requires more than just negligence to implicate the 8th Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The government must be at least deliberately indifferent which is typically judged under a recklessness standard. That requires a substantial risk of harm be known to a reasonable person in a defendants' shoes. A reasonable physician's assistant should know that swollen teeth pose a risk of death and should immediately inform a dentist of such things.
"Dental care is one of the most important medical needs of inmates. Dental care that consists of pulling teeth that can be saved is constitutionally inadequate. Delays in dental care can also violate the Eighth Amendment, particularly if the prisoner is suffering pain in the interim." - ACLU
The above quote cites several legal precents the citations of which are included in a PDF being uploaded with this article. Under the standards set forth by the ACLU, Stetzer's rights were clearly violated. Unfortunately, although it would be fairly easy to convince a room of academics that Stetzer's rights have been violated, the real word rarely works so well. In the real world there are so much bureaucratic and legal loopholes the government can use to avoid accountability that the best someone like Stetzer could hope for would be that somebody will engage in years of litigation that might persuade a judge to issue an order that sounds alright, but when applied only results in minor changes capable of meeting some technical requirements without doing anything to substantially improve anything.